Jerry Stiller, who died on Monday at age 92, had two very famous sons. In real life, Stiller was the father of, and occasionally appeared on screen with, Ben Stiller, who became one of the biggest movie stars of the 1990s and 2000s. (Jerry and his wife, the late Anne Meara, also had a daughter, actress and comedian Amy Stiller.) But Jerry Stiller may be best known for his role as a fictional father on what many consider to be the best sitcom of all time, Seinfeld.
As Frank Costanza, Stiller was tasked with playing the dad of George Costanza (Jason Alexander), best friend to the show’s main character, Jerry Seinfeld, but nonetheless a perpetual loser whose bad luck and lack of success with jobs and women often seemed justified by his pettiness and petulance. Meeting George’s parents gave viewers a glimpse at why George was the way he was, and at that the writers really delivered: George’s parents (his mother, Estelle, was played by Estelle Harris) were exactly the kind of bitter, acrimonious people you’d expect to have raised someone like George. If the nagging, insecure side of George came from his mother, Stiller gave Frank a mix of anger and pride that enriched the character and whole show more than a dozen flashbacks ever could.
The best joke about George’s sorry lineage may have come in a Season 8 episode, “The Andrea Doria.” Long story, but George is trying to come up with examples of hardships he’s endured in his life to impress a tenant association to land an apartment he wants. So he invites his parents to the coffee shop to jog his memory a bit about what his adolescence was like. Before they can even get into it, though, his parents get into a fight—Estelle wants to sit elsewhere because she’s cold, but Frank doesn’t want to give up the booth they’re sitting in. As Frank, Stiller, in the light-blue jacket his character often wore, goes from barely looking up from reading the menu while dismissing his wife to, in a matter of seconds, yelling at top volume and gesticulating wildly. Frank then decisively closes his menu, the screaming of a moment ago forgotten, and looks at George and asks, “Now, George, what do you want to know about your childhood?” George, who’s just been reminded of everything that was miserable about his upbringing, says, “Actually, I think I’m pretty clear on it.”
Stiller didn’t appear on Seinfeld until the show’s fifth season, and he was in fewer than 30 of the show’s 180 episodes, as noted in the New York Times and elsewhere. That’s worth dwelling on. How is it that a character who wasn’t even on the show until it was halfway through, and then still only a fraction of the time, became such an indispensable part of it? That’s how indelible Stiller made Frank Costanza. Jerry’s fictional parents also appeared on the show—and had a great rivalry with the Costanzas that had Frank yelling at one point, “Are you trying to keep us out of Del Boca Vista?!”—but Jerry Stiller ultimately appeared in more episodes than they did, despite the late start and despite being the parents of a lesser-billed character.
Season 9, the show’s last, included a few episodes that were arguably built around Stiller, including “The Serenity Now,” featuring another of Seinfeld’s instantly recognizable phrases, as well as the episode that gave us Festivus. Though Frank was George’s father, the show found a way to work him into other plotlines and scenes with other characters, and his scenes with Kramer are particularly memorable. The Festivus episode may be his best showcase: He visits Kramer to tell him about a holiday he celebrated while George was growing up, Festivus. With a far-off look in his eyes, he recounts the invention of the holiday—it involved trying to buy a doll for George and physically fighting with another man over it, but Stiller commits to the ridiculous things he’s saying with total certitude. The doll was destroyed, but a new holiday was born, “a Festivus for the rest of us,” he says while pantomiming to the sky as if dunking an invisible basketball. “That must have been some kind of doll,” Kramer says. Frank responds with a nod, his eyes wide with sincerity, “She was.” And Stiller was some kind of actor.
For more of Slate’s culture coverage, listen to Working’s interview with crime novelist Megan Abbott.